As the Trump administration continues to forcibly separate immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, “babies and other young children” are being sent to “tender age” shelters in Texas, The Associated Press reported Tuesday night.
At least three shelters, in Combes, Raymondville and Brownsville in South Texas, are currently operating, the report said. Visitors to the centers described “playrooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis.” Children at the shelters were found to be “hysterical, crying and acting out.”
A fourth shelter, which could house up to 240 children, is reportedly being planned for Houston. Sylvester Turner, Houston’s mayor, has said the shelter is not welcome in his city.
“The thought that they are going to be putting such little kids in an institutional setting? I mean it is hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” Kay Bellor of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a nonprofit that provides child welfare services to migrant children, told AP this week.
“Toddlers are being detained,” she said.
The administration has taken more than 2,300 children from their parents since early May, when the White House announced its “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossing. Officials on Tuesday said they didn’t know how many of these children were younger than 5.
CNN reported last week that a mother from Honduras said her breastfeeding baby was taken from her by federal agents while she was awaiting prosecution at an immigrant detention center. Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, described seeing “5-year-olds in cages alone with no adult care” and a 4-year-old whose diapers were being changed by other detained children as she visited a facility where migrants were being held.
Trump officials this week defended the “tender age” shelters, saying they are well-equipped for providing care to young children.
“We have specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs, and tender age children as we define as under 13 would fall into that category,” Steven Wagner, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told AP. “They’re not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they’re staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs — particularly of the younger children.”
Lawyers and medical professionals who visited the shelters said they found the facilities to be “clean and safe” but stressed it wasn’t the centers themselves that were the issue.
“The shelters aren’t the problem, it’s taking kids from their parents that’s the problem,” Marsha Griffin, a South Texas pediatrician who has visited several shelters, told AP.
Research has shown that institutionalizing children can cause lasting emotional scars, as well as physical and mental health issues.
″[Separating] children and parents at the border is a practice that has the potential to cause significant, lifelong harm to the children involved,” wrote the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners in a statement last week denouncing the practice. “Research clearly shows that traumatic life experiences in childhood, especially those that involve loss of a caregiver or parent, cause lifelong risk for cardiovascular and mental health disease.”
It remains unclear how long the Trump administration intends to hold the thousands of children in their care in shelter facilities. It’s also unknown how long these children will be kept from their families.